WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon's top intelligence official emerged as the leading choice Friday for what's fast becoming known as one of the most thankless jobs in Washington — director of national intelligence. The position has a great title, but the office has just claimed its third victim.
James R. Clapper, now the defense undersecretary for intelligence, is the White House's leading candidate to replace retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who is resigning, two current U.S. officials and one former military official say. Another candidate is Mike Vickers, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for special operations, officials say, but a Defense Department official says he has not been contacted for an interview.
With three previous intelligence directors all saying the same thing — the job description itself is flawed — who would want it?
Candidates who were considered but apparently are no longer in the running include Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and John Hamre, a national security veteran who heads the private Center for Strategic and International Studies. The word on both, officials say, is that they thought about it but didn't want the job.
The popular refrain from across the IC, as the intelligence community calls itself, is that the DNI has "all the responsibility and none of the authority."
The man or woman President Barack Obama chooses will have the job of making 16 separate intelligence agencies heel, from the CIA to the National Security Agency. That means forcing institutions that derive congressional support and funding by showing off their individual expertise and information — the more intel you take credit for, the more support and power you gain — to instead share that intelligence wealth equally.
It's kind of like socializing what was a capitalist-driven model.
That's still very much a work in progress, 10 years after the Sept. 11 commission report that led to the law that led to the director of national intelligence.
Yet the DNI has to referee those fights with no funding oversight. He or she can't use purse strings to make recalcitrant intelligence officials obey.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has gone on record complaining that the 2004 intelligence reform act — which officially created the DNI position — failed to address tough questions of crossed lines of authority, and left it to the director to sort out.
"The DNI reflects what has been a common post-9/11 response," said Henry Crumpton, a former CIA operations officer who has twice served as a chief of station. "We created a Washington-centric solution to a problem that is global and networked," creating a new leader and a new bureaucracy and thereby giving the information even more layers to pass through.
There are two competing theories on what type of DNI needs to follow Blair's uncomfortable tenure — either an Obama insider whose access to the personal power of the president becomes his badge of authority, or someone who gets along with the people who already have that access.
Clapper, a former Air Force intelligence officer, is thought to fit the mold of a "good soldier," who would work with Panetta and White House counterterror chief John Brennan without picking turf fights.
"Who would want the job?" asked Sen. Kit Bond from Missouri, the leading Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Right now you're trying to get by on personal relationships — that's how the previous three directors got by."
The other real source of power for such a job is a relationship with the president. Lose that, and you lose all authority in the intelligence community. That's what happened with Blair, according to a senior official who is close to him. There'd been friction, he said.
The official line from the administration, as reflected in Obama's statement about Blair's departure, is that he did just what he was asked to do — he shook up a flawed system. But the conclusion was that the man who left bruised feeling throughout the intelligence community in the process was no longer the best man to lead it.
Others say Blair was just too blunt in public about problems that remained.
For example, there was his congressional testimony — in a most colorful way — that the new high-value interrogation team wasn't called in to question the man accused in the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing. He hit his head with his hand in "I could have had a V-8" fashion, and concluded, "Duh, you know ... that is what we will do now."
This was not the style of a White House that prides itself on honing its public message.
Blair supporters see it a little differently. Many of his defenders on Capitol Hill say that when he was overruled early on in favor of CIA Director Leon Panetta, Washington insiders smelled blood in the water and have been ignoring him ever since.
The issue in that case involved who would choose the DNI representative overseas. Blair tried to clarify and establish who got to make that call. Panetta pushed back and won.
A second clash came with the arrest and interrogation of the Detroit Christmas Day suspect, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in which the FBI was given the lead in the interrogation. Blair later acknowledged in congressional testimony that he was not consulted.
Finally, there was the Times Square bombing attempt, where the Obama officials pushed front and center were the president's White House counterterror chief John Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder.
"He was being pushed aside," Bond said of Blair.
The first DNI, John Negroponte left in 2007 for a lower-ranking job as the No. 2 at the State Department. His successor, Michael McConnell, resigned last year shortly after Obama took office — and before Senate confirmation of Blair.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.